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OutRight: Lost in Translation

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McCain on gay adoptions.

DaleCarpenterBy Dale Carpenter

The conventional view about John McCain is that, on many domestic issues, he tries to appeal both to religious conservatives and to independents. I think the truth is often less calculated than that: he has good instincts but simply hasn’t given many cutting-edge domestic issues much deep thought. In recent comments about gay adoption, for example, he began badly but ended up in a pretty sensible position.

It started when the New York Times asked McCain whether he supported allowing gay couples to adopt children. “I think that we’ve proven that both parents are important in the success of a family,” McCain responded, “so, no, I don’t believe in gay adoption.”

The interviewer, apparently dumbfounded, asked whether McCain would maintain that view even if it meant the child would be placed in an orphanage. McCain, suddenly sensing a culture-war minefield, avoided the question and simply said that he believed adoption should be encouraged.

Lots of gay activists jumped on this exchange as if proved that McCain hates gays or, at the very least, proved that he has capitulated to the religious right. It proves neither.

I don’t think McCain has given even a moment of thought to adoption policy. The second half of the quote is a non sequitur. Adoption is necessarily a context in which “both parents” are unavailable, so it makes no sense to cite the superiority of biological parents as a reason to prohibit adoption by gays.

In the context of the culture wars, I think McCain hears a question like, “Do you favor letting gay couples adopt?” as, “Do you think gay parents are as good for a child as a mother and father?” I don’t think he hears it as, “Do you think that, once a child is up for adoption because his mother and father are out of the picture, gay people should be allowed to adopt that child?”

There is considerable debate about whether children do just as well with same-sex parents as with opposite-sex ones. Studies comparing children of gay and straight parents, while supportive of gay parenting, are not yet conclusive. Reasonable people who don’t blindly hate gays can believe that opposite-sex couples would be better for children on average than same-sex couples.

Hardly anybody believes, however, that this means gay persons must be prohibited from adopting children. Only one state absolutely forbids it. That can’t be McCain’s position, which was obvious when he sidestepped the interviewer’s follow-up about Dickensian orphanages.

But McCain’s answer created enough doubt, and generated enough criticism in the blogosphere (including by me), that his campaign was obliged to explain what he meant.

McCain expressed his personal preference for children to be raised by a mother and a father wherever possible. However, as an adoptive father himself, McCain believes children deserve loving and caring home environments, and he recognizes that there are many abandoned children who have yet to find homes. McCain believes that in those situations that caring parental figures are better for the child than the alternative.

A week later, McCain was asked again about gay adoptions by ABC’s George Stephanopoulos. He responded, again, by asserting that he supports “traditional families” but also supports adoption for kids with no alternatives.

What to make of all this? By itself, the clarification was unobjectionable. Few doubt that children should be raised by their own mother and father “wherever possible.” But where the biological parents aren’t available or are incompetent, children should be raised by caring adoptive parents. For McCain, does that include a same-sex couple?

While some gay writers and activists complained that McCain didn’t go far enough in repudiating his earlier opposition to gay adoption, it’s instructive to consider the reaction of antigay groups like the Family Research Council. The FRC fumed that McCain’s clarification had “muddied the waters” of his earlier opposition.

And while McCain could have been clearer in his clarification, it does establish a couple of important things that all but the most zealous supporters of Barack Obama should appreciate. Whereas McCain had suggested to the New York Times that it’s always best for children to be raised by mothers and fathers, he now acknowledges this often won’t be possible since “there are many abandoned children who have yet to find homes.”

Also, his seeming insistence on allowing adoptions only by opposite-sex couples has been replaced by supporting adoptions into “loving and caring home environments” where there are “caring parental figures.”

I would have liked an explicit acknowledgment that gay parents can be caring parents and provide loving homes. (That would be a good future follow-up question for him.) But it won’t be lost on religious conservatives that the McCain campaign used the kind of gender-neutral language about families that could be found on the website of the National Gay & Lesbian Task Force.

Taking his statements together, I think McCain’s view is roughly this: When it comes to adoption, opposite-sex couples are preferable, but same-sex couples are acceptable. That’s not a crazy or necessarily antigay view.

In fact, if that’s his view he is near the forefront of adoption policy, since such “second-parent” adoptions by unmarried gay couples are now permitted in only some jurisdictions in only about half the states.

On the whole, after some twisting and turning, McCain came up with a generally supportive position on gay adoption. It won’t appease gay partisans in an election year, but it is defensible.


Writing from the conservative side, Dale Carpenter began his column for OutSmart in 1994, when he lived in Houston. Now residing in Minneapolis, Carpenter is a University of Minnesota Law School professor.

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